Nov 112010
European Premiere: Chevrolet Volt Production V...
Image by gmeurope via Flickr

I’ve been fascinated by the Chevy Volt since the day I heard about the concept.

Which is this: it’s an electric car without the short range of electric cars.

Usually, when your electric car’s battery dies, you’re dead on the road. You have no choice but to tow it, or wait hours for it to recharge.

General Motors’ concept is to equip the Volt with a tiny gas-powered generator that can power the electric motor even after the battery’s dead. It’s sort of like a reverse Prius: instead of having a gasoline-fed car assisted by a battery, it’s an electric car assisted by gasoline.

It’s a huge gamble and a huge challenge. Three years ago, I interviewed Bob Lutz, General Motors’s vice president of product development about how difficult the Volt project was. Especially developing a battery that can last ten years (it’s warrantied for eight), works in blazing heat and freezing cold and has enough capacity to power the car for 40 miles a day on electricity alone. (That, says GM, covers the driving needs of 82 percent of Americans.)

Mr. Lutz’s rosy price predictions (“nicely below $30,000”) didn’t quite come true—the final car’s base model actually costs $41,000, and extras like leather seats and backup camera can drive the price up to $44,500 or so. (The company hinted to me that the price may drop once the early-adopter/early-green types have snapped up the first batches. Also, you can get a $7,500 hybrid-car tax credit.)

Otherwise, though, Mr. Lutz’s 2007 vision largely remains intact—including the part about releasing the car before the end of 2010. GM hopes to deliver on the first orders in December to people living in seven lucky areas: California, Washington, D.C., Michigan, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Austin, Texas. In the following 18 months, it will expand availability to the rest of the country.

This past weekend, I spent three hours driving the Volt through New York and Connecticut. The driving entailed everything from the snarls of New York Marathon traffic chaos, to highway pedal-to-the-metal stuff, to suburban side streets.

The car is a good-looking compact, although it’s much more conventional-looking than in early prototypes. But inside, it’s pretty radical. The center console is hard plastic, with touch-sensitive words like Time, Config and Back. It’s very techy (and very confusing).

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